As we speak I’m working my way through Hogg, Samuel R. Delany’s controversial novel which depicts how a self-proclaimed “rape artist” wreaks havoc in and around a small town in the American South. It’s been a few years since I first read the novel. I have vivid recollections of forcing myself to carry on reading during a particularly hot summer. After every page I felt a bit dirtier. By the time I had finished the book I was badly in need of a shower. Not because I had inadvertently copied the unspeakable acts the novel describes, but because the descriptions had affected me like few other stories have ever done. Though I vowed to “do something with this”, at “some point in the future”, my plans remained vague and life got in the way.
Until I started thinking about taking my dissertation further by writing a conference paper, taking the opportunity to explore a few ideas that had spent months, and sometimes years, in my virtual drawer for ideas and half-finished projects. With the British Association for American Studies annual conference coming up in April, I thought it was about time I returned to the book that had affected me so much the first time around, and give it the academic attention it deserves.
I started, like I usually do, by rereading the novel. On a rainy Saturday afternoon I took myself and said book to my local coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino and a muffin, and made myself comfortable. What an odd experience it turned out to be. After a few pages my appetite had evaporated and the muffin seemed oddly superfluous. But what’s more, I felt embarrassed because I was reading the book in public. Next to me a father was entertaining his young children. Even though my book’s cover was decidedly non-controversial, it felt wrong to be reading violent pornography in the presence of minors. People often approach me when I’m reading in public to ask me what my book is about. I usually enjoy this, it pretty much guarantees a nice chat with a fellow booklover, but that Saturday I prayed for people to ignore me. I don’t like to think of myself as a pervert but the book made me feel like one. Given that I’ve been known to read the likes of American Psycho on trains, in canteens, and during lunch breaks, this is no mean feat.
Unlike the first time, I did not struggle to carry on reading and finished the book in two days. Maybe I got used to the horror, maybe my subconsciously developed ideas were speeding up my reading. In any case, I’m in the middle of writing the paper and find it surprisingly enjoyable. Sure, it’s a challenge to discuss such an extreme book in an academically sound and ethically responsible way, but I’m getting there. If anything it’s made me think about the way I do research and the way I share it with others. What the response will be when I finally get to present the fruits of my labour remains to be seen. Hopefully the venue has decent bathrooms. I’ve got a feeling that my audience and me are going to need them…badly.